18 February 2012 — Power of Narrative
In a recent essay, I mentioned Matt Taibbi as one of the examples of a phenomenon I call “The Obedient Dissenter,” and said I would be examining that phenomenon in further detail soon. This isn’t that lengthier analysis, but more in the nature of a sneak preview.
Taibbi posted this entry yesterday: “Another March to War?” His remarks deal with the major media’s warmongering about Iran and the distortions they rely upon. All true, and all old news to those who’ve been awake however briefly in recent years. Note what he drops into the middle of his discussion:
I’m not defending Achmedinejad, I think he’s nuts and a monstrous dick and I definitely don’t think he should be allowed to have nuclear weapons…
He shouldn’t be allowed to have nuclear weapons? Ahmadinejad is going to stock all those terrible nuclear weapons in his very own personal Closet of Worldwide Destruction? And then, some night when he’s had a few too many drinks or because he’s pissed off about not getting his favorite dessert, he’s going to haul out a missile and hurl it at some unsuspecting country? And he shouldn’t be allowed to have these weapons? Who’s going to enforce that prohibition, Taibbi — you and what military? Oh, that’s right: that would be the United States military.
In this manner, Taibbi reduces the most consequential matters of international relations to questions of personality — thus throwing open the door to all the gutter language used by every warmongering propagandist, all the talk of Ahmadinejad being the “new Hitler,” the embodiment of evil and so on. Taibbi even helpfully includes his entirely unsupported and extraordinarily dangerous opinion that Ahmadinejad is “nuts.” Way to fight the power, Taibbi!
Thus does Taibbi accept all the assumptions and premises of those he says he is criticizing. Thus does he concede the battle before the first shot is fired.
But that’s not the worst thing in his post. Taibbi discusses what he calls “a weird set of internalized assumptions” that form the basis for much of the media’s coverage, a sort of “‘Western industrial power’ code.” He describes the operations of that code this way:
[O]ur newspapers and TV stations may blather on a thousand times a day about attacking Iran and bombing its people, but if even one Iranian talks about fighting back, he is being “aggressive” and “threatening”; we can impose sanctions on anyone, but if the sanctioned country embargoes oil shipments to Europe in response, it’s being “belligerent,” and so on.
Taibbi then hauls out one of the hoariest of lines: wasn’t there a time, he wonders, a sort of Paradise Lost, when Americans “genuinely needed to feel like they were on the right side of things, and so the foreign powers we clashed with were always depicted as being the instigators and aggressors, while our role in provoking those responses was always disguised or at least played down”?
And he concludes:
But now the public openly embraces circular thinking like, “Any country that squawks when we threaten to bomb it is a threat that needs to be wiped out.” Maybe I’m mistaken, but I have to believe that there was a time when ideas like that sounded weird to the American ear. Now they seem to make sense to almost everyone here at home, and that to me is just as a [sic] scary as Achmedinejad.
A translation of these gibberings would seem to be required. Wasn’t there an idyllic period of comparative innocence, asks our babe in the woods, when the lies were better? When the lies weren’t quite so transparent? No, Taibbi, there wasn’t.
We might mention the lengthy slaughter of Native Americans by the European settlers. It wasn’t precisely a secret that the Native Americans were already here — I mean, they were here and the settlers were slaughtering them in huge numbers. It also wasn’t a secret that we pushed the Native Americans into smaller and smaller areas — and continued to slaughter them. It is also fairly well-known — at least, I had thought it was — that the general attitude of the new arrivals was: “How dare these primitive barbarians resist when we kill them!” And we proceeded to kill almost all of them.
And we might mention the centuries during which the European settlers enslaved vast numbers of human beings, after first forcibly importing them to these shores under unimaginably brutal conditions. We could discuss the unending evils of the institution of slavery — and we might note that, whenever those who were enslaved rebelled against the evils imposed on them, the attitude of many Americans was: “How dare these subhuman beasts protest against their enslavement!” Of course, the Americans who lived in the Paradise Lost imagined by Taibbi killed huge numbers of slaves, while condemning the rest to lives of terror and unending cruelty.
Or we might mention America‘s deliberate instigation of the Mexican-American War, and the manner in which the same propaganda techniques we see today were used in the middle of the nineteenth century. I discussed all this in a post from November 2006. That entry offered excerpts from Hampton Sides’ book, Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West. Sides writes:
The mission on which Kearny led the Army of the West [in 1846] had no precedent in American history. For the first time the U.S. Army was setting out to invade, and permanently occupy, vast portions of a sovereign nation. It was a bald landgrab of gargantuan proportions.
Realizing that neither diplomacy nor outright bartering would achieve his expansionist ends, Polk was determined to provoke a war. He dispatched Gen. Zachary Taylor to disputed territory, between the Nueces and the Rio Grande, in southern Texas. It was an unsubtle attempt to create the first sparks. In April 1846, Taylor’s soldiers were fired upon, and Polk was thus given the pretext he needed to declare war.
“American blood has been spilled on American soil,” Polk spluttered with righteous indignation, neglecting to mention that Taylor had done everything within his power to invite attack, and that anyway, it wasn’t really American soil–at least not yet. Mexico had “insulted the nation,” the president charged, and now must be punished for its treachery, beaten back, relieved of vast tracts of real estate it was not fit to govern.
The simple truth was, Polk wanted more territory. No president in American history had ever been so frank in his aims for seizing real estate. …
Perhaps to dignify the nakedness of Polk’s land lust, the American citizenry had got itself whipped into an idealistic frenzy, believing with an almost religious assurance that its republican form of government and its constitutional freedoms should extend to the benighted reaches of the continent then held by Mexico, which, with its feudal customs and Popish superstitions, stood squarely in the way of Progress. To conquer Mexico, in other words, would be to do it a favor.
And so on and so forth. In “The Slaughter of the Diseased Animals,” I described this repeated pattern. In discussing the torments inflicted by Israel on the prisoners of Gaza, I wrote:
For a very long time, the United States government has specialized in the pattern pursued by Israel. The vastly more powerful nation wishes to act on a certain policy — almost always territorial expansion, for purposes of access to resources, or to force itself into new markets, or to pursue the evil notion that economic and ideological success depend on brutality and conquest — but a specifically moral justification for its planned actions does not lie easily to hand.
So the powerful nation embarks on a course designed to make life intolerable for the country and/or those people that stand in its way. The more powerful nation is confident that, given sufficient time and sufficient provocation, the weaker country and people will finally do something that the actual aggressor can seize on as a pretext for the policy upon which it had already decided. In this way, what then unfolds becomes the victim’s fault.
The United States government has utilized this tactic with Mexico, to begin the Spanish-American War, even, dear reader, in connection with the U.S. entrance into World War II, most recently in Iraq, possibly (perhaps probably) with Iran in the future, and in numerous other conflicts. It’s always the fault of the other side, never the fault of the United States itself. Yet the United States has always been much more powerful than those it victimizes in this manner. The United States always claims that its victims represented a dire threat to its very survival, a threat that must be brought under U.S. control, or eliminated altogether. The claim has almost never been true. This monstrous pattern is “The American Way of Doing Business.”
This preview turned out to be longer than I had anticipated. Taibbi made it necessary — for he is not merely “mistaken” (pity the poor child). Rather, he appears to have missed all of American history, as well as the stratagems utilized by the powerful throughout all of history whenever they seek to increase their power still more.
But Taibbi tells us he “ha[s] to believe” in the Eden of his concocted fantasy, and that he “ha[s] to believe” in an America that never existed then and that has never existed at all. That is because he has absorbed every critical element of American exceptionalism, and he seems to lack even the faintest understanding of the false set of beliefs to which he clings so desperately.
So Taibbi is inexorably led to call Ahmadinejad “nuts,” and to proclaim that this “nut” must “definitely” not be “allowed” to have nuclear weapons. The propagandists in the media and in Washington are laughing with delight, for they could not ask for more. With opposition and dissent like this, they can begin the next war this afternoon, and nothing will stand in their way.
But some of us are not laughing. No, we most certainly are not.